Thursday, December 13, 2007

The art of intuition

Last month, I sat down for a Q&A with Jonah Lehrer, who's made quite a splash -- if an expert on the intersection of art and neuroscience can do so -- with his first book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." The book was well-reviewed, and the LA Times just listed it one of the 25 best non-fiction books of the year. Here's the first chapter.

To me, what makes Lehrer's thesis so profound is it's simplicity: We expect artists to explain in words and pictures human experiences long before science has caught up. But his understanding of the two, and his ability to weave them together, makes for a good read, even if a review in The Jewish Journal thought it was boringly obvious.

Here's the beginning of my interview:
Jewish Journal: In your book, you are particular to refer to these works of art as intuitions, not predictions. Why?

Jonah Lehrer: [Art] is very different from science, which does try to predict the results of experiments -- you generate hypotheses, you have control variables. These artists were very rigorous in their own sense. They were very sensitive observers of experience, but they weren't trying to predict. They were trying to look at their experience, and introspect on it, and intuit on that. We tend to disregard experience and say, "Oh, that is just wishy-washy stuff." These artists demonstrate that you can learn important things just by paying attention.

JJ: Toward the end of the book, you write, 'You don't even exist.'

JL: That is one of these surreal ideas of neuroscience, which is that there is no cell that represents you, there is no discreet circuit from which you emerge. You are just a distributed parallel processor. You've got all these neurons doing their thing and you emerge somehow simultaneously from this helter-skelter of activity.

At the same time, it's not very meaningful to say that is all we are. Clearly we are self-conscious creatures. We feel like so much more, and there is a mystery there which science won't be able to solve: How the water of the brain becomes the wine of the mind.... That is the question that art is uniquely able to interrogate and try to solve.

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